April, the new album from Sun Kil Moon, is Mark Kozelek's first original record since the acclaimed 2003 Sun Kil Moon debut ''Ghosts Of The Great Highway''. 11 songs at almost 74 minutes, ''April'' is a collection of songs recorded between March and August 2007 in San Francisco (Hyde Street Studios) and Seattle (Well Recording). In the spirit of Sun Kil Moon's ''Ghosts'' and ''Tiny Cities'', Mark was joined by the same players as before, including drummer Anthony Koutsos (Red House Painters), bassist Geoff Stanfield (Black Lab), violist Michi Aceret, and percussionist David Revelli. ''April'' also finds Mark in the company of guest vocalists Bonnie Prince Billy, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie), and Eric Pollard (Retribution Gospel Choir).The album will come with a bonus CD featuring four alternate versions of songs from "April".
Review by Thom Jurek
Despite the change in his band's name from Red House Painters to Sun Kil Moon, songwriter Mark Kozelek has changed very little in the past decade-and-a-half. Sure there was a left turn when he did a rather unorthodox (to say the least) album of covers of Modest Mouse tunes, but he recorded those songs as if they were his own and performed them like that as well. There are forces at work in Kozelek's own songs that follow like a ghost train from one destination to the next. April is no different. Memory is the fossil fuel that drives his creativity unhurriedly along a rather labyrinthine maze to the same place: wherever he is, he wishes he were somewhere else. But it's also the acceptance of that fact that makes these songs what they are. His touch on the guitar varies. In its trademark loping, ever-so-slowly unfolding of a ten-minute narrative like "Lost Verses," it's a blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and he hovers around the same three chords like it's a mantra as his words come from some place caught between the depths and instructional truth revealed over time, and the immediate wince of powerful emotions. It's a tension, but one that is not unbearable or taut. "The Light," evokes Neil Young at his most languid. Layers of distorted, warm-toned, countrified 4/4 time, with a single trance-like snare, hi-hat and bass drum, and four-note bassline to pace the words along their great length. There are other times, though, where Kozelek just lets it rip, as on "Tonight the Sky" that touches on Young's riff from "Ohio," as well as "Like a Hurricane." The volume level varies, the droning drums and bassline walk a line and make so much space for the guitar overdubs that at first, the lyrics are almost superficial -- but anyone who has listened to Kozelek for any period of time knows that this is a mistake. They are clear enough to hear, but feel like an afterthought to that druggy loose vibe coming up from the garaged out instrumental mix. At some point -- and it's different in each tune -- the vocal cracks open with some nearly unbearable truth, so personal, so ultimately gut-wrenching that the listener catches her breath, caught between empathy and embarrassment for the singer. The release that takes place at about the six-minute mark, where the vocals are all but swallowed by the guitars, is liberating for moment, but it also swallows the protagonist whole. Kozelek handles all the guitar chores, and has a wonderfully empathic rhythm section in Geoff Stanfield and Anthony Koustsos. Bonnie "Prince" Billy appears on "Unlit Hallway," while Ben Gibbard and Eric Pollard also guest. And those choruses, those backing vocals that seem to float up to where they can be heard, but just barely? They are among the most glorious elements of the sound -- on this record in particular. Kozelek is simply continuing on his way here, but that said, to stand apart from all the superlatives and just get lost in his creation here, he has made the best record of his career. This is as perfect an entry point, as it is a summation -- no easy feat -- of where he's been thus far; which is to say, he's always back at the guitar, writing and playing from that haunted center and trying to make sense of the weight, the grief, and the love both expressed and received along his lonesome road. Early versions of April also contain a bonus disc with four alternate versions of album tracks.
Sun Kil Moon / Mark Kozelek
April / Nights
[Caldo Verde; 2008]
Rating: 8.3 / 7.3
Few songwriters could bear the scrutiny of a book of lyrics, although far too many invite it. Writing good songs is only half the challenge; the other is to set words compellingly to paper, without the securities of voice, chords, and melody to reinforce their internal rhythms and recast their meanings. In 2002, Mark Kozelek, formerly of Red House Painters and currently alternating between a solo project and the loosely defined Sun Kil Moon (which is pretty much a solo project), released a book of lyrics called Nights of Passed Over in Europe, where his cult is even more intensely rabid than his American audience. Culling primarily from his work with Red House Painters, the book argued persuasively for Kozelek as a gifted, intuitive, and insightful songwriter, with an aversion to sentimentality and a way of combining words that is evocative without being showy or clever. His lyrics can stand on their own, even without his low, rich, sad voice and shimmering, patient guitar.
Six years later, Kozelek has reissued Nights of Passed Over in America. A lot has happened during that interim: He has released three albums as Sun Kil Moon and has already reissued one of them, has put out a live album under his own name, and has formed his own record label, Caldo Verde. The label is also publishing this new version of Nights of Passed Over, which is accompanied by Nights, a full disc of alternate takes, rarities, and live tracks. It might seem like an act of supreme hubris if it weren't for the fact the Kozelek often eludes musical associations in favor of literary ones. Despite the persistent comparisons to Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their most compact, his literary influences seem much more useful: Kozelek draws from Raymond Carver when he's in storyteller mode, at other times from Robert Lowell or Norman Dubie or James Kavanaugh. That's a big statement for any musician, especially one who tends to write about his cats.
Nights begins with a live version of "Michigan", from the Painters' 2001 swan song Old Ramon. The song thrums with a palpable sense of desire and a quickly diminishing sense of restraint: "I see through your thin cotton dress/ I don't know if we'll get to rest/ So pull by that store parking lot/ You know I've missed you lots/ Warn me of the cans and nots." Recorded at Union Chapel in London, this version of "Michigan" features only Kozelek's vocals, which are subtle as an internal monologue, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and a rapt audience. That's really all it needs. In a sly stroke of sequencing, he moves directly into "Drop", from the same venue, with its devastating admission delivered in long lines that seem to break the meter: "All the love in an instant makes my life stop/ But then my hate for you makes my feelings altogether drop."
Of course, Kozelek isn't a literary figure, but a musical one, so the CD lives and dies by the sounds that accompany his words. And these are, by Kozelek's own admission, the lesser takes, so occasionally Nights does little more than remind you to pull out your old copy of Ocean Beach. The guitars on this "Jam version" of "Carry Me Ohio" ground out the melody like a cigarette into asphalt, but the nice, twisty solo somewhat redeems this take. Originally released on Cameron Crowe's Vinyl Films label, this acoustic version of "Duk Koo Kim", from Sun Kil Moon's Ghosts of Great Highway, sounds hypnotic as the guitars pick out a steady theme that changes notes even as they repeat the same rhythm. For all its ups and downs, Nights never feels like a vault-emptying exercise. It's more a compendium of Kozelek's marginalia.
Kozelek has updated Nights of Passed Over up through April, his long-awaited Sun Kil Moon follow-up to Ghosts of Great Highway (not counting the Modest Mouse covers album Tiny Cities). The simultaneous release of both works makes Nights of Passed Over seem like one of the most elaborate lyrics sheet ever. These new songs continue his emphasis on steadily paced compositions about lost loves, distant friends, deep regrets, and nebulous sadness, but shifts the setting from the open road to closed-in rooms at the end of long drives.
Not as immediately accessible as Ghosts, April starts with "Lost Verses" and "The Light", two long, slow songs that are together nearly twenty minutes long. This is Kozelek time, and it takes a moment to adjust. But once you do, the nuances of the songs' melodies and arrangements gradually announce themselves, like lengthy jam tacked onto "Lost Verses" and the grinding electric strums that fill the spaces between the vocals on "The Light". Lyrically more than musically, "Lost Verses" makes for an effective opener, as Kozelek seems to consider all the things that he has neglected to write down: "Lost verses well up my eyes and ears," he sings plaintively, fearing that he'll become a lost verse to the people he loves. That sense of faltering memory colors April in shades of rainy grays and deep blues. It's a spring album that still pines for previous seasons.
By the time the moody, acoustic "Lucky Man" comes around, the album has set its stride and maintains it through eight more songs. Bonnie Prince Billy lends backing vocals on the country-tinged "Like the River and "Unlit Hallway", which breaks for a spiky banjo solo. These are the most dramatic departures on April, which expands only minimally on the solemn Americana of Kozelek's previous works. He hits many familiar notes, yet manages to make it all sound new and even adventurous instead of conservative or quaint. He reaches into his fragile upper register on "Harper Road", and maps out a travelogue on "Moorestown" that feels nearly threadbare with remembering. "Tonight the Sky" draws out its meanings with churning guitars, pausing for a lengthy solo that threatens to fall apart with every note. The album draws its power not simply from the quality of Kozelek's songwriting, but from the close intertwining of words and music, which makes his albums much more essential than any book he could ever publish.
-Stephen M. Deusner, April 11, 2008